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Friday, Aug 29, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Weatherford in retrospect: What, already?

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As the whirlwind that has been Will Weatherford’s political career rises toward its (presumably first) crescendo in a few months, let us refrain from wondering about the inevitable — What’s next? — just long enough to ask this: Where did the time go?

OK, writing Weatherford’s state House of Representatives obituary now, before the start of the 2014 legislative session, is sort of like burying, as some did, Jack Nicklaus before the 1986 Masters. After all, there is, to borrow the Olden Bear’s phrase, a lot of golf left to play. And, like Nicklaus — who went on to crown his career with his 18th major championship that year at Augusta — with 11 months before he officially surrenders the gavel as Speaker of the state House of Representatives, Wesley Chapel’s Weatherford, only 34, remains motivated both by accomplishment and unfinished business.

First, the triumphs.

Weatherford’s first session as CEO of the House seemed well-informed by his experience overseeing Florida’s complicated and occasionally bruising — for his party, anyway — reapportionment process in 2011. To wit: Sometimes leaders have to make sacrifices to win the larger battles.

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He began by endorsing across-the-aisle outreach, the fruits of which were several bills — significant ethics, campaign and election reforms; more education spending; outlawing Internet cafes; the final budget — that, while not everything his fellow Republicans found ideal, struck sufficient middle ground to pass with bipartisan support.

More bipartisan accord: There was money found to restore Florida Springs; defense established for infants born alive, triggered by revelations from the trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell; a mandate for the pubic to speak at county and municipal meetings; and $1 billion set aside for the state’s “rainy day” fund.

Not bad for a committed conservative who’s attracted the praise of Americans for Prosperity and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

But Weatherford could also stick to his position like Gibraltar in a hurricane if he thought his principles were at stake. When it came to rejecting the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, Weatherford steeled the spine of the GOP-led House, accepting the beat-down administered by Democrats, some maverick Republicans (including then-Rep. Mike Fasano, now — not coincidentally — Pasco’s tax collector), Gov. Rick Scott and virtually every newspaper editorial page in Florida.

Then as now, Weatherford will not be budged. He is particularly skeptical about Washington, awash in rising red ink and unfunded liabilities, being able to keep its promise to the states about footing 90 percent of the expansion in perpetuity, and it’s not like states that accept the feds’ start-up money could easily back out if the spigot is cut off.

An attempt to seek a Florida-only solution to health-insurance expansion failed to pass, but we can expect the issue to re-emerge when the Legislature reconvenes in March. Which brings us to unfinished business.

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Still keen to avoid the sort of public pension disasters that have cropped up elsewhere, Weatherford will resume pursuit of a 401(k)-style program for new hires covered by the Florida Retirement System, despite complaints that FRS is not remotely in danger of default. The Speaker knows the time to repair your roof is not in the middle of a downpour.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see some attempt to trim around the edges of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, although Weatherford remains a staunch supporter. He still wants more free-market forces brought to bear on Citizens Property Insurance, Florida’s state-run insurer of, increasingly, only resort. He’s also warming to the idea of putting an expansion of gambling options on the November ballot.

Locally, we’re bound to hear more about steering state funds into Pasco projects, such as a science-engineering-math academy, a water-management project for Lacoochee and transitional housing for the homeless in Holiday that Scott trimmed out of the 2013 budget.

And then? It’s anybody’s guess. He’s been rumored as a solution to the lieutenant governor vacancy, and it would be fascinating to see him in a statewide campaign. But for Weatherford, who has said his name won’t be on any ballot in 2014, tackling Scott’s uphill climb to re-election would involve substantial risk to his otherwise unblemished star. Still, aforementioned Nicklaus is on board as a committed fundraiser, so how bad could it be?

No, we’re not going there. Instead, we reiterate what we said at the top: What’s your hurry? Let the Speaker be the Speaker a little while longer. Just now, let the future worry about itself.

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